Gotta Run: Mental benefits of exercise for challenging times

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 10, 2021

I have been home for just about a month now and most of that time has been wonderful. But every day at home seems to bring more news of rising prices and shortages of goods. This past week, the talk among runners and walkers includes the challenges of finding your favorite running shoe. Why does this matter as much as the rising costs of gasoline, home heating and groceries? Because the mental benefits of exercise help us deal with concerns and issues that seem overwhelming otherwise. I thought today was perfect to visit the reasons why exercise helps.

Exercise is not just about aerobic capacity and muscle size. Sure, exercise can improve your physical health and your physique, trim your waistline, improve your sex life, and even add years to your life. But that’s not what motivates most people to stay active.

People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. And it’s also a powerful medicine for many common mental health challenges.

This is by far the most important reason that I run. I tell people almost daily that I need it, not for the physical benefits but for the sense of well-being. I read last week that as many as 20% of everyone who reads this has a prescription for mood-altering drugs.

Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety and ADHD. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts your overall mood. And you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. Research indicates that modest amounts of exercise can make a real difference. No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn to use exercise as a powerful tool to deal with mental health problems, improve your energy and outlook, and get more out of life.

Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication — but without the side effects, of course. As one example, a recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%.

Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. Most importantly, it promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. Exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.

Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety and depression treatment. It relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy, and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins, powerful brain chemicals that make us feel good.  Physical activity helps to relax the muscles and relieve tension in the body. Since the body and mind are so closely linked, when your body feels better so, too, will your mind.

When faced with mental or emotional challenges in life, exercise can help you build resilience and cope in a healthy way, instead of resorting to alcohol, drugs, or other negative behaviors that ultimately only make your symptoms worse. Regular exercise can also help boost your immune system and reduce the impact of stress.

You don’t need to devote hours out of your busy day to reap all the physical and mental health benefits of exercise. Just 30-minutes of moderate exercise five times a week is enough. And even that can be broken down into two 15-minute or even three 10-minute exercise sessions if that’s easier.

If you don’t already exercise, or not enough to meet these guidelines, consider doing it. But get your shoes right away!

Racing is back! Locally, we have the Spooky Sprint 5K, fun run and costume contest at Catawba College on Halloween afternoon, Oct. 31. Check it plus five more 2021 events coming soon at